Team outfits and fashion weren’t supposed to be a big talking point at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Corn protests on the skimpy uniforms of two women’s teams in the months leading up to the games put bikinis and high-cut leotards in the spotlight. Now, these large-scale campaigns leave Olympians, fans and aspiring young athletes wondering: why are are women supposed to bar their bodies while men are covering themselves?
In April, the German women’s gymnastics team switched from traditional high-cut leotards to ankle-length leotards, protest against “sexualization” of their bodies. This dissent was aimed at highlighting and preventing sexual abuse in sport, following recent high profile cases in the we and UK. They continued their expression at the Tokyo Olympics.
Similarly, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fine for breaking the uniform rules at the European Championships in July. In Tokyo, they too continued their protest wearing fitted shorts. The team claimed that bikini bottoms made them uncomfortable, made it harder to manage their period and distracted young athletes from their sport. For many, the last point is essential to understanding the impact of uniform sexist policies.
Uniform rules in sport are designed for a idealized western femininity. These norms do not include girls giving up sports to wear naked uniforms, neglecting different hair and skin types, ignoring curvy and muscular body shapes, and willfully ignoring the realities of the rules. What these policies suggest is that women’s bodies are supposed to be perfectly slim, perfectly hairless, able-bodied and without periods.
british runner Jessica Ennis-Hill wrote a sincere essay about his fear of exposing himself and how a “skinny kit” can traumatize young athletes. From bodily shame to sexualization, her experience exposes the invisible struggles of girls and women in sport and echoes research on girls in sport.
Neglected and underdressed
These campaigns reject prevalent sexist norms in sports and oppose female uniforms being designed for the “male gaze,” leading women to be judged for their aesthetic appeal alongside their athletic talent.
Without a doubt, these women take a courageous and commendable position. Yet their voices carry an influence that women of color and athlete advocates in non-Western countries are often denied. With much less fanfare and media attention, they were lobbying for changes to the kit for decades, often on behalf of Muslim athletes and / or people of color.
In Table tennis, a rule change for long sportswear and headwear – as opposed to shorts and T-shirts that leave arms and legs bare – has been successfully lobbyed for increase the participation of Muslim athletes. This victory went largely unnoticed in the west, despite table tennis being a mainstay of the Olympics. Campaigns by Muslim athletes have led to similar rule changes in basketball and judo, where the women were finally allowed to wear headwear and long-sleeved tops underneath, as their faith required.
In contrast, Swimming rejected proposals to adapt uniforms for Muslim and black athletes, including a ban on “burkinis” and prohibiting the use of “soul cap” swim cap designed for natural dark hair.
Athletes with disabilities also face different standards, which was made clear recently when a British Paralympian was criticized by an official who called her outfit too “revealing”. It was the standard running brief worn by most women.
Who makes the rules?
Modern sport was designed for and by white men. Overall, men still do most of the rules, including those who monitor the bodies of girls and women. The uniform regulations vary between international federations, which is why the Norwegian team was fined, but the Germans were not.
Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not directly control uniform policies, it has advocated fairer rules in its Gender equality review 2018 “Ensure that competition uniforms reflect the technical requirements of the sport and do not have unjustifiable differences”. This statement begs the question: what is the justifiable why women should wear light uniforms while men can cover up?
What does this mean for athletes and young girls with Olympic dreams? Beyond the general sexualization of female athletes, there are six identifiable consequences that can harm girls and women in sport:
1. Girls drop out of sports – teenage girls feel too uncomfortable about unflattering / stripping uniforms.
2. Embarrassment – cameras can catch athletes accidentally exposing underwear, body hair, and more. Teasing and bodily shame on social media is a real problem.
3. Period panic – fear of leaking menstrual blood or exposing menstrual products in light or white clothing is common.
4. Excluding athletes from non-Western cultures, skin-exposing uniforms prevent girls and women from Islamic and other communities from competing.
5. Promote Racial Prejudice – Uniform standards often make assumptions about body types and hair built around white physical stereotypes.
6. Battles for body hair – women and girls are pressured to wax / shave bikini lines, legs and all “non-female” hair or risk ridicule and body shame on social media.
We need more women in leadership
These uniform policies put women under additional pressure to conform to Western feminine ideals when they should focus on their athleticism. This constraining paradox leaves little room for athlete action to challenge traditional and negative conceptions of muscular femininity.
International federations need to adjust technical rules to allow athletes to choose clothing that suits their performance, personal comfort and cultural preferences. These choices can motivate teenage girls to stay in sport, support athletes of color, and encourage the participation of more conservative cultures.
Recruiting more women from diverse backgrounds into leadership positions in sport is a key step. Broadcasters and marketers should take note – just as athletes feel uncomfortable, many female viewers don’t like watching sports with objectified bikini players.
Generations of athletes and advocates have struggled to make these changes. More recently, the movement has strengthened to unite across cultures and sports. The Olympic Games should be a place of inclusion, cultural exchange and equality. Let’s start dressing the room.